Starting Young: Reducing Overrepresentation of Native Americans in the Justice System

By Erin Walenta, Kaila Caffey, Catherine Quinn, Hanna Anderson & Jasmairy Marte

Native American people are the second most overrepresented population in the US justice system. Native Americans are incarcerated in state and federal prisons at 38% above the national average, and on any given day, 1 in 25 Native Americans over the age of 18 is involved in the judicial system in some capacity. Clearly, something needs to change.

As a whole, Native Americans are a very young racial group. 29% of Native American people living in the United States are under the age of 18. As such, juvenile justice issues are Native American justice issues; in order for the overrepresentation of Native American people in the justice system to be ameliorated, a major focus needs to be paid to reforming the juvenile justice system for Native American youth.

One of the primary ways to do this is to promote cooperation between state juvenile courts and tribal courts. The tribal court system has the potential to be truly transformative for Native American justice issues in this country. It focuses on restorative justice rather than punitive justice and, in doing so, prevents people who have committed minor offenses from becoming unnecessarily incarcerated.

Currently, under Public Law 280, there are six states in which those living on tribal land are under the authority of state governments: California, Nebraska, Alaska, Oregon, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. In these states, there is typically a level of cooperation between the tribal government and the state government when it comes to ensuring justice is served. Judge Abby Abinanti, a judge for the Yurok Tribal Justice System, said that this often comes in the form of probation conditions. A person is sentenced to probation in state court, but one of their probationary terms is participation in tribal court. Judge Abinanti states that there is no such intertwining of the youth system and expressed how impactful such a thing would be in keeping Native American youth out of detention centers. As such, the suggestion to promote cooperation between the state juvenile justice system and the tribal justice system was born.

To some, this suggestion may seem overly specific. It would only really impact the Native American youth populations in these six states, leaving the juvenile justice policies in 44 other states untouched. However, it is in these states where it counts the most, given that Alaska, California, and Oregon are among the ten states with the highest Native American population.

This country and its justice system—not to mention its health care, foster care, and school systems—have failed the vast majority of Native American people living on reservations, and failed them terribly. There is no denying that. However, there are steps that can be taken to reduce the amount of over-policing, incarceration, and unnecessary separation of families in these communities. Focusing on juvenile justice is one of the most impactful ways to do this.

Works Cited

“Demographics.” National Congress of American Indians, National Congress of American Indians, 1 June 2020,

Golding, D., & Nesbitt, L. (2017). Tribal Justice . Docuseek.

“Native Lives Matter.” Lakota People’s Law Project, Lakota People’s Law Project, Feb. 2015,

“Tribal Population.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 21 Dec. 2018,

The authors were part of a task force investigating Native Americans and the juvenile justice system as part of a spring 2021 Eliot-Pearson course, “Plugging the Preschool-to-Prison Pipeline: How Incarceration Affects Children, Youth & Families,” taught by Dr. Martha Pott.

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